Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Romance of the Sentence

I can’t draw. I can’t fix things. I can’t act. My singing talent, best described as “modest” – actually, that’s generous -- has been committed to CD. Don’t ask me to sculpt anything. The artistry of my photography is pretty much limited to bounce flash and primitive Photoshop 3 operations. If SEAL Team 6 broke in one night and said “your life or an engaging fictional plot,” I wouldn’t be here to write these lines.

But one thing I can do, is type. For this I have to thank my mother’s genes and Mrs. Humphrey’s eighth grade typing class, where I was the champ on a manual Remington with metal caps over the keys so you couldn't see the letters, even beating the kids who got the few IBM Selectrics, the iPads of their day.  (Fingernail polish hid the letters on the Selectric keys.)

You thought I was going to say, “One thing I can do, is write.” That is, of course, the animating conceit of this site and of much of my life, but when one’s public output is limited to blog entries, Christmas letters, and summary judgment briefs, one is reluctant to call oneself a “writer.”

I try to write well. My keyboard speedfingers are something of an enemy to this endeavor, as I’m able to dump pretty swiftly onto the page the contents of my head. The results frequently mirror the disorder of what is to be found there.

But once in awhile, I commit to binary code a nice sentence.

Writers are obsessed by sentences. Plots and ideas abound; words, easy. But assembling the latter to advance the former in a way that is pleasing and persuasive to the reader – brother, you gotta have sentences, and some of them gotta sing.

It didn’t start with the modern master, Hemingway, whose spare constructions are beautiful to the ear and nourishing to the inner eye. But his sentences brought the art to the attention of a larger public. Teachers of writing programs tear their hair out at the crummy sentences their charges urp out. Some of it is a lack of knowledge of syntax and punctuation. But a lot of it is simply the lack of an ear for the music of which the English language -- the palette of Shakespeare, the scribes of the King James Bible, Henry James, the Brontës, Austen, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Chandler, and their descendants – is capable. I've written here of my admiration for Merrilil Gilfillan, whose sentences, both spare and flowing, are exquisite.

Stanley Fish, an extremely controversial literary critic and university administrator -- he is colorfully attacked by both the left and right, which probably means he’s on to something -- has written a very fine little book about sentences called How to Write a Sentence -- and How to Read One.  I think we can put his political notoriety aside; I did not detect an ideological agenda here.

The title is a little misleading. After you finish it, you will not have learned very much about how to write sentences. He makes a stab at taking the reader through a few simple exercises, but his heart isn’t in it. What he really wants to do is bring to the reader’s attention the importance of the sentence, to describe the different types of sentence, and to provide numerous examples of good ones from literature and non-fiction.

You will learn more about how to read one.  As I made my way through this slim volume, I recalled pleasures from my own reading. I recalled a crime novel by one of the better writers in that genre, T. Jefferson Parker, and encountering a paragraph stringing together some of finest sentences I have ever read – and their subject matter was probably rather lurid, given the subject matter. And there are those sentences like the first sentences of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (in translation), that never quite leave you: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And I just now remembered another one; I had to go to my library to find it because I have long forgotten the novel and its author (although strangely, when I went to the stacks, I pulled it right out). It is the first sentence from a novel called Now You See It (1991) by Cornelia Nixon, and goes: “In the summer of 1949, in eastern Colorado, far from the nearest metric wrench, our car died and sunk in a sea of sheep.”

What is it about the sentence? Do we break up our communications in this way because it mirrors our need to take a breath during speech? Or is it something more fundamental – does it reflect the way we think, in discrete bundles of information and reasoning? As I composed this essay, it occurred to me that there may be no particular reason that thinking, and speech, and writing – which is to say, understanding and perception -- could not be seamless, freed from the tyranny of subject-verb-object. But it’s the way we’re put together, and the sentence is likely with us to stay. Even the extremely long sentence as practiced by the likes of Faulkner, James, the late David Foster Wallace must be broken up into separately comprehensible clauses to allow us to get from one end to t’other.

Here’s my formula for a great sentence: (1) It must stand on its own as pleasing to the inner ear, with pauses (or not), vocabulary, word choice (not the same thing), and grammar suitable to the nugget of information it is designed to communicate. (2) It must have some intrinsic interest. It need not be something surprising, as in the two examples above, but it should provoke at least some slight recognition that there is something different here to which heed must be paid. This second requirement is not found in every single sentence, because sometimes one has to advance the narrative without even a hint of razzle-dazzle: “He drove the boulevard looking for a McDonald’s.” Perhaps this is just another way of saying that not every sentence has to be great. Sometimes you just have to say something  simply and quickly to get to the more interesting stuff.

And (3), the fine sentence must be a part of the rhythm of the other sentences in the narrative. One great line does not make a great song, and the great line will sink if it is disharmonious with its fellows. (I think of Pauline Kael’s film reviews as examples of melodic writing.) Perhaps Professor Fish will favor us with a volume on “How to Write a Paragraph.”

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes about writing, from Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel, who was tortured and murdered in Stalin's Great Purge:

"No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place."

Isaac Babel, practicing what he preached.

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